UN reformers are scrambling to account for the mismanagement, poor performance and increasing irrelevancy documented in reports released this month. Proposals touted thus far take baby steps forward but still fail to address perhaps the UN's most egregious fault: Placing petty politics before its humanitarian goals. And nowhere is this more visible than in the case of UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated solely to caring for Palestinian Arab refugees.
It's not exactly common knowledge that Palestinian refugees -- singularly among all refugee groups -- enjoy the support of their very own UN agency: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, aka UNRWA. All other refugee groups get assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which is the UN agency responsible for coordinating assistance to refugees worldwide. Since 1951, UNHCR has worked within the regulations of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to find long-term, "durable" solutions to refugee crises. Through a combination of legal protection and emergency relief, to date, UNHCR has successfully helped more than 25 million people restart their lives.
For the Palestinian refugees, however, no durable solution has been found in the 50-plus years since their problems began. Originally numbering between 500,000 and 750,000 persons, Palestinian refugees now number more than 4 million, the majority of whom live in or near one of 59 camps in five countries. Their plight's implications extend far: The Palestinian refugee problem stands squarely in the way of achieving peace in the Middle East. Understanding the unique phenomenon of Palestinian refugees, however, requires first understanding just how anomalous the institution designed to assist them is.
UNRWA was established by General Assembly Resolution 302 in December 1949. From the outset, the agency had an extraordinary degree of autonomy, largely due to pressure from the UN's Arab bloc. It was thus free to set its own definitions and guidelines --which were markedly different from those of UNHCR. For example, UNRWA defines Palestinian refugees as "persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict." By contrast, the UNHCR definition -- recognized as the international norm -- describes a refugee as someone who "is outside his/her country of nationality or habitual residence; has well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution."
By emphasizing "country of nationality or habitual residence," UNHCR clearly intends to exclude the transients embraced by UNRWA's definition -- people who had only recently arrived in Palestine from neighboring Arab countries in search of work. Moreover, while UNHCR seeks to prevent expansion of its definition in ways that would encourage its improper use for political ends, UNRWA has done just the opposite: Not only has it declined to remove the status of refugee from people who no longer fit the original description -- such as the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians granted full citizenship by Jordan -- but it indefinitely confers refugee status on refugees' descendants.
By expanding its already problematic refugee definition, UNRWA guarantees that the problem will remain ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening. For some Arab leaders, this may be precisely the aim.
By expanding its already problematic refugee definition, UNRWA guarantees that the problem will remain ever-growing, and thus ever-worsening. For some Arab leaders, this may be precisely the aim: So long as the Palestinian refugee problem is visible and acute, Israel remains a convenient scapegoat on which the region's political, social, and economic ills can be blamed.
The agencies' diverging policies further reflect the difference in definitions. Indeed, by refusing to consider any resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue other than that demanded by the Arab world -- the "right of return" to Israel, as envisaged in non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution 194 -- UNRWA has effectively denied Palestinian refugees an end to their unwanted status, the very goal that UNHCR takes as its raison d'etre with regard to the refugees that fall within its mandate.
In light of the political unfeasibility of a return to Israel (with the exception of the Arab countries, it is widely accepted among the international community that an influx of over four million Palestinian refugees into Israel is neither a realistic nor an acceptable goal), it is remarkable that Palestinian Arab refugees have never been offered a means of resettlement. While it's true that most of Israel's neighboring Arab countries (with the notable exception of Jordan) have continually denied citizenship to Palestinian refugees and their descendants -- many of whom have been born and raised in these countries, UNRWA itself has never promoted resettlement among refugees, nor has it attempted to pressure Arab countries into complying with their responsibilities toward these refugees.
Instead, UNRWA has followed a policy of insisting on resettlement within Israel and reinforced refugees' collective attachments to their places of origin. A flagrant example of this policy is the manner in which UNRWA has thwarted offers to Palestinian refugees of permanent housing outside refugee camps. In 1985, for example, Israel attempted to move refugees into 1,300 permanent housing units near Nablus -- without demanding that they relinquish the "right of return." Yet the UN intervened, asserting that "measures to resettle Palestine refugees in the West Bank away from the homes and property from which they were displaced constitute a violation of their inalienable right of return."
Of all UNRWA's problems, however, the most serious is links to Palestinian terror. According to a 2003 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, for example, UNRWA employees were arrested and convicted by Israeli military courts of throwing firebombs at an Israeli public bus; possession of materials that could be used for explosives; and transferring chemicals to assist in bomb-making. Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold saw shahid (martyr) posters in the homes of UNRWA workers during a visit to Jenin in April 2002. "It was clear," he said in a December 2003 interview, "that UNRWA workers were doubling as Hamas operatives."
The full extent of the terrorist infiltration in UNRWA refugee camps was revealed during Israeli army incursions into refugee camps mounted in the spring of 2002 in response to an unprecedented wave of terror attacks. The UNRWA-run camps were riddled with small-arms factories, explosives laboratories, Kassam-2 rocket manufacturing plants, and suicide-bombing cells. This should hardly have come as a surprise: As PA Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib remarked in February 2002, every young man in UNRWA's Balata refugee camp had his own personal weapon, because the local steering committee -- an official UNRWA body -- voted that charitable donations would be used for guns rather than food or other relief.
Whether UNRWA is afraid to interfere with terrorist activity in its camps, or whether it has become so entrenched in the terrorist infrastructure as to be effectively indistinguishable from it, the evidence is clear that an agency mandated to serve a humanitarian purpose has been drafted to further a militant political agenda.
The UN Refugee Convention established international standards with respect to refugees. In its deviation from these, it is clear that UNRWA is not only unhelpful to the Palestinian refugee issue, but is actually detrimental. Those nations interested in finding a genuine, viable solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, a sine qua non for peace in the Middle East, should be encouraged to work towards the termination of UNRWA's mandate and the institution of UNHCR policies to the Palestinian refugee issue in its stead.